He looks more like a neighbor ready to perform weekend chores than he does Dale Earnhardt Jr.
But Aaron Crowl is not puttering around the yard. He is doing laps around Potomac Speedway. On his lawn mower. At 85 mph.
“People don’t know how to take it when you tell them you race lawn mowers,” said the 39-year-old Bel Air, Md., resident. “They think you are a little loopy, and they envision you out there puttering around at 7 miles per hour. When they come out and see an event, they come away saying, ‘We had no idea.’ It is a blast.”
Crowl is not alone in his affection for souped-up lawn-maintenance equipment.
The U.S. Lawn Mower Racing Association (USLMRA) has 500 members in 21 chapters nationwide. The association will stage 14 points races this year and crown champions. Its chapters will stage dozens more events. The USLMRA has a broadcast deal with ESPN, and there is a video game in the works.
The riding lawn mower might be a symbol of suburban America, but racing the machines began in England more than 30 years ago by motor sports fans put out by the high cost of the sport. They figured everybody has a lawn mower, why not just race them?
The sport began on this side of the Atlantic in 1992 as a publicity stunt for a company that makes a fuel stabilizer, and it’s been gaining speed ever since.
“The attraction is, one, we Americans love to race,” said Bruce Kaufman, president of the USLMRA . “We will race anything — bar stools, bathtubs — so why not lawn mowers? And we love to do things on the cheap, and we love to tinker. And finally, we have a love affair with our lawns. You put that all together, and lawn-mower racing is perfectly American.”
The sport rapidly won fans such as Crowl, a former stock car racer who raced mowers seven years ago as a favor to a friend staging a car show. Crowl now heads the Mid-Atlantic chapter, which includes Delaware, Maryland, the District and Virginia.
“Two years ago, I took over as president” of the Mid-Atlantic chapter, Crowl said. “My whole family got involved. My wife, Stacey, races. My twin daughters, 11-year-old Ashley and Alicia, both race. They started last year with a class called Kidstock.”
That togetherness is part of the appeal.
“That’s one of the great things about lawn-mower racing,” Crowl said. “We take mini-vacations every weekend. We work hard to get ready for these races, but it is a family thing. We pack up our pickup truck. We load the four mowers in the trailer and travel all around the area as a family. We’re racing together.”
But all the races aren’t for everybody.
The USLMRA has six classes for races. Stock is the slowest, with machines that travel about 6 mph. The fast lane is reserved for the Factory Experimental class, in which speeds can exceed 90 mph.
For nationally sanctioned races, in which drivers compile points and compete for a national title, drivers must be at least 16. The Mid-Atlantic chapter runs a Kidstock class for children ages 6 to 15.
The only other requirements concern safety. The blades must be removed and drivers must wear a helmet, goggles or a face mask; a long-sleeved shirt or jacket; long pants; full-finger gloves; and leather footwear that covers the ankle.
The tracks are generally between 600 and 800 feet long, with a minimum width of about 25 feet and can be in a variety of shapes, set up with straw bales to mark the course.
“Each track can present a different challenge,” Crowl said. “Some tracks have long straightaways, and the guys that really have the horsepower prevail on those tracks, but then you have one with a lot of turns, and the guys with the better handling and driving skills prevail, because you can’t use all that horsepower.”
Some racers spend as much as $6,000 a year on their mowers, but they won’t earn it back with victories on the track: No prize money is awarded at races.
“That is crucial,” said Kaufman, known in racing circles as “Mr. Mow it All.” “It keeps it fun and affordable and creates good sportsmanship. If you start racing for money, you lose all that.”
Said Crowl: “All you need is a helmet and a sense of humor.”